Breast Self-examination - What Is It All About?

Tunne rintasi ry is a Finnish association that promotes breast self-examination through training and spreading information about breast cancer. Sonja Raunio, the executive manager of the association is a University of Helsinki alumna. We sat down with her to talk about the association, breast self-examination, and body positivity.

 

Tunne rintasi ry was established in 1992 to continue the work of Martat and Marthaförbundet who had been promoting breast self-examination from the 1970s onwards. The association receives funding from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health for its important work for health promotion. It is the only organization in the country focused solely on breast self-examination even though organizations representing patients, such as Rintasyöpäjärjestö Europa Donna Finland Ry, also promote it alongside their other activities. ‘But we have exceptional knowledge about self-examination accumulated over the past 25 years that other organizations don’t have’, Sonja Raunio points out.

What is breast self-examination?

If you’re like me, you might never have heard of breast self-examination. In a nutshell, breast self-examination is about getting to know your breasts, and regularly examining them to track any changes in them that might be malign. These changes are typically lumps or skin changes that can be early signs of a tumor. By regularly examining your breasts you can spot breast cancer earlier and get treatment before the cancer has spread.

Breast self-examination dates back to the 19th century but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was introduced in Finland by Gisela Gästrin, a doctor who also wrote her PhD dissertation on the topic at the University of Tampere in 1994. The situation was radically different in the 70s: most doctors were reluctant to encourage self-examination. Luckily the Finnish and Swedish-speaking Martha Organizations started a project encouraging it with the help of Gästrin. This is the legacy of Tunne rintasi ry.

 

How to do it?

Self-examination might sound tricky or even scary, but Tunne rintasi ry aims to make it as easy and natural as possible. Their website is full of information and guides on how to do it and they provide information leaflets in several languages. The multilingual guides are done in cooperation with Monika-naiset liitto ry, a multicultural women’s organization based in Helsinki. Tunne rintasi ry has also launched a free app called Omakuu (only in Finnish) that combines tracking your period with self-examination reminders and tips. Combining these two also has a practical purpose: It’s advisable to examine your breasts immediately after the end of your period. 

Tunne rintasi ry recommends examining your breasts once a month to ensure that you are familiar with what your breasts feel and are like. It’s really easy: gently touching your breasts while laying on your back and then looking at them in the mirror to see if any changes occur and making notes if necessary. It only takes a couple of minutes!

Why should we care?

While most people diagnosed with breast cancer are older women – the average age people get diagnosed in is 60 – Tunne rintasi ry is actively trying to reach out to younger generations, too.

We want to encourage younger women to pay attention to this issue, too. If you start self-examining at an early age, it will have become a good habit once you reach the age where people typically get breast cancer’, Raunio points out. In an effort to reach out to a wider audience, the association is becoming active on social media as well as on YouTube where you can find videos about self-examination.

It isn’t always easy to talk about this issue. Raunio has noticed that women tend to play down their worries and fears, which might have something to do with how problems usually associated with women tend to receive less attention in general: ‘I’ve noticed that if we say that breast cancer is the most common cancer among women it doesn’t seem as important in society compared to if we say that it’s the most common cancer in the country. It’s really sad’, Raunio says. Luckily, recent decades have seen huge improvements and more doctors today encourage self-examination, too.

As noted above, breast cancer is the most common cancer in Finland at the moment. Some 5000 women are diagnosed with it annually and it’s the second most common cause of death for working-aged women. ‘This is one of the reasons why promoting self-examination as well as general knowledge about breast cancer is such an important task’, Sonja Raunio states. 

Not just for women

What many people don’t know is that breast cancer affects men, too, albeit to a greatly lesser extent. People who have undergone a sex reassignment surgery might also get breast cancer, which is not often talked about in society. Unfortunately, there is still little research on breast cancer and people who have had sex reassignment surgeries but Tunne rintasi ry aims to include everyone in their work because anyone can be affected. Since breast cancer is most common in women, it is often more difficult for other sexes to get a diagnosis.

Tunne rintasi ry organizes training and information sessions for groups and provides training for people interested in working as trainers themselves. While there are health-care professionals involved in training, that is by no means a requirement for becoming involved. The message that Tunne rintasi ry wants to send is clear: ‘Anyone can learn to do this and no one should feel intimidated by it’, Raunio emphasizes.

Fighting the fear

The word cancer has a bad ring to it – with good reason – but one of the central aims of the association is to fight the fear associated with breast cancer and to break taboos about the female body in general. Dispelling fears is no easy task considering how common cancer is these days. However, there are many positive facts, too. Around 90% of breast cancer patients survive the disease with modern treatments, and in most cases it tends not to be overly aggressive. This is where breast self-examining comes in handy:

‘If you notice something in your breasts that you’re not sure about, you can monitor the changes for a couple of months before going to the doctor. In most cases, breast cancer grows slowly. I would like to point out, however, that if you feel worried, going to see a doctor is always a good idea, even if you’re younger’, Raunio adds.

Another issue that we confront is the unease that many women have about their own bodies and negative body images which can make women less inclined to want to self-examine’, Raunio adds. This is why the association wants to promote body positivity as an integral part of self-examination. Breaking taboos about breasts is also on the agenda and it is being achieved through talking about them openly in different contexts.‘The woolen breasts that we use to promote self-examination in different events have been a huge hit!’ Raunio rejoices. ‘We shouldn’t feel ashamed or uneasy about our breasts or our bodies’.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, I felt moved and empowered after our chat. In the words of Arja Koriseva, a singer and breast cancer survivor who first sought medical attention after self-examination: ‘There’s nothing positive about breast cancer but self-examination is a positive thing and should not be feared’.

To find out more about the association, you can visit their website: http://www.tunnerintasi.fi